Parenting for the perplexed | What happened to your legs

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Rachel Biale, MSW, is a Berkeley-based parenting consultant who has been working with parents of very young children for more than 25 years.

Send questions through her Facebook page, Parenting Counseling by Rachel Biale, or via [email protected].

I was walking with my 5-year-old son in San Francisco. As we approached a man in a wheelchair, my son called out at the top of his voice (and let me tell you, he can project!), “Daddy, what’s wrong with the man’s legs?” I was so embarrassed. I pulled him to my side (OK, I yanked his arm a bit) and said: “Shush, don’t say that!” The man in the wheelchair turned around and drove away from us. I know I didn’t react well, but what’s an appropriate response in this instance and, more generally, when kids ask bluntly about people with disabilities? — San Francisco Dad

Dear Dad: Before responding to your question, I consulted with my friend Jim LeBrecht, who has been a wheelchair user since he was a small boy. He’s heard it all: “What happened to your legs?” “Can I ride in your wheelchair?” “Lucky you, you can ride!” and more. Some kids — old enough to know better — ask if was born in a wheelchair. “Don’t you think that would be a bit painful for my mom?” he answers. Still, Jim would rather take a socially inappropriate question — especially from a curious child — any day over the more common responses by adults: yanking their child away, averting their eyes or walking around him as if he’s not there.

Jim LeBrecht and Rachel Biale

Your reaction was indeed unfortunate. But you can repair the damage. Start by talking to your son at home and answering his questions. Then, next time you encounter someone in a wheelchair, model for your son by starting a friendly conversation. “Beautiful day to be out, isn’t it?” As the conversation unfolds, you can introduce your son and encourage him to ask questions, reminding him to show the same manners he would toward any adult.

He can make a simple inquiry, such as “Why do you have to be in a wheelchair?” But even less polite questions, such as “What’s wrong with your legs?” will most likely elicit a simple answer, such as “I was born this way” or “My legs don’t work well enough for walking.” I hope (and bet) that he’ll get more: “But I can drive a car and I have a really interesting job and a lot of friends. And I love chocolate, don’t you?”

From here, let the conversation flow naturally. Your child might want to know how the person can drive a car, what kind of job he has, what else she can do in the wheelchair. You’ve accomplished the key lesson: Those with disabilities may have different challenges than we do, but they are real people with rich lives, not fixtures in a wheelchair.

Young kids are often curious about the mechanics of the wheelchair. Jim will ask the parent for permission to show how the chair works and let the child try the joystick control (which may be familiar from video games). Sometimes Jim will take a small child for a short ride on the sidewalk.

Once you’ve gotten this far, your experience will serve as an excellent opening for further discussion at home about differences and disabilities, both visible and hidden ones. Ask your child: Is there anyone at school who has special challenges? Anyone in your family? In your neighborhood? If not, it may be time to expose him to the issue through books and other media. One place to start is

Rachel Biale
Rachel Biale

Rachel Biale, an Israeli native, is a Bay Area Jewish community professional and author.